Once wildly more popular than the ACT, the SAT saw a big drop in market share in the mid 2000’s. Which test is more popular today, and do colleges prefer one test or the other?
Is the SAT or the ACT More Popular?
Until 2012, the SAT’s popularity exceeded that of the ACT—in market share it was about 55% versus 45%. Coastal high school students living in places with more Starbucks than Walmarts generally chose the SAT, while students in the interior of the U.S., in zip codes with more Walmarts than Starbucks generally took the ACT. Further, it was believed that coastal universities preferred the SAT, while colleges in the hinterlands favored the ACT. As that perception—that the colleges had a preference between the two tests—waned, ACT began eating into SAT’s market share.
In 2012, the ACT surpassed the SAT in market share and the college prep testing world shook. It felt as if Pepsi had surpassed Coke’s market share, Bing had surpassed Google, or One Direction had surpassed The Beatles.
Why? It’s hard to know for sure, but at the time, the ACT was probably a bit better as a test. It had more data science and less geometry. It was straightforward. And many states adopted the ACT as their official state test for juniors. The SAT, as you would expect, took notice, and within three years revamped its test content to look more similar to the ACT. At the same time, the SAT partnered with Kahn Academy to offer free test prep and increased their direct-to-state marketing, and the SAT regained market share supremacy within a few years.
As of 2019, the SAT is officially more popular than the ACT with 55% of the market share. More than 2.2 million students in the class of 2019 took the SAT compared to about 1.8 million students who took the ACT.
Do Colleges Prefer the SAT or the ACT?
As the ACT test’s popularity grew, so did its acceptance as an accurate, esteemed exam among colleges and universities. Today, all universities in the US accept the SAT and ACT and show no preference for one test over the other.
Many students take both tests – but we recommend choosing one or the other. Take a timed practice test for both tests and decide which test to focus on based on your preference and results.
Which Test Should I Take?
So which test should you take? It comes down to your skills and preferences.
ACT test questions are more concise and clear than SAT test questions, so you spend less time figuring out what the question is asking and more time figuring out the answer.
Additionally, each section of the ACT is weighted equally; this means you can have one low section score and still achieve a high composite score. So if you struggle with Math, then high Science, Reading, and English sections scores can help bring up your composite score.
Strong mathematicians may prefer the SAT test. Due to the way SAT scores are calculated, the SAT math score is 50% of the total score. And since SAT scores are often reported as the two section scores (Math and Evidence-Based Writing and Language) rather than the total score, a high math score can really shine.
Those who think they have a shot at National Merit status should also consider taking the SAT, because National Merit Scholars are selected based on PSAT scores; if you study for the PSAT, it follows that you might study for the SAT which has a similar format.
For more on which to take, read this blog post.